New class gives alternative to traditional ideas of medicine

The laments are common whenever people discuss college.

“I haven’t learned any practical information,” or “I wish I had majored in something else.”

Add Alice Lindeman’s new course to the list. She is an associate professor at Indiana University who just finished teaching the first semester of a three-credit course, “Complementary and Alternative Approaches to Health,” as part of the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Her 22 students took their final exams this month, covering topics such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic, herbs, homeopathy, magnet therapy, meditation, naturopathy, nutrition therapy, Pilates, reflexology and therapeutic touch.

“Alternative medicine is taught in practically every medical school these days,” Lindeman said. “But I wanted our students (who will become nutritionists, public health officials, physical education teachers, exercise instructors, recreational therapists) to understand the potential and limitations of alternative therapies.”

To that end, Lindeman said, she is interested in helping students develop a “questioning mind” about alternative therapies.

“I want them to dig for the science,” Lindeman said. “I want them to discover what’s safe and effective.”

The Indiana professor started developing the course materials in 1999, then attended a Harvard Medical School conference on complementary and alternative medicine in March 2000. She met dozens of physicians and other practitioners who were enthusiastic about her plan to teach the material. Yet she was careful not use the word “medicine” to describe the course.

“Complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, is a commonly used term,” Lindeman said. “But medicine is typically about treatment. This class is more than treatments. It makes a point that complementary and alternative approaches are about taking greater responsibility for yourself.”

Lindeman figures that if the students learn it for themselves first, then they will be better equipped to help others. Her class list includes students majoring in nutrition, public health, recreation, religious studies, music, pre-med, biology, psychology and two students in an independent-study program who plan to someday practice traditional Chinese medicine.

Lindeman’s syllabus required three major assignments and three exams. The assignments included a consumer-oriented analysis of an herbal supplement, an interview with an alternative-health practitioner and, Lindeman’s favorite, a final report on a folk or home remedy used by family, friends, acquaintances or subculture.

“Students presented reports on honey, apple cider vinegar and bee pollen with extensive scientific references,” she said. “Another student traced the history of using onions for wounds. One report explained how wet tobacco anesthetizes the pain of a bee sting, so you can break open a cigarette, soak it and apply it right to the sting.”

The course met twice per week for lectures from Lindeman, who is an impressive conversationalist. But the most fun was likely in small-group sessions scheduled on Thursdays and Fridays.

The students would try such practices as massage, tai chi, yoga and what Lindeman calls “museum therapy” (students were assigned to find an area of the university art museum that is healing).

Another feature of small-group sessions was a series of student reflections (as written assignments shared in class on the due date) based on readings in “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal” (Riverhead, $12.50), by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. If you haven’t read the book, buy it for yourself.

“Every student has said the same thing after reading the book,” Lindeman said. “They are going to get their parents to read it.”

She plans to teach the course every fall at Indiana University. Her goal is to attract 60 to 70 students per course. What’s more, she is working on a summer course that would include an online segment. She envisions offering a total online class by 2003, making it attractive to health practitioners such as nutritionists who can use it to better serve clients and get continuing-education credits. She aroused significant interest for such a long-distance learning class at this fall’s annual meeting of the American Dietetic Association.

“Nutritionists need to be educated about herbs and other dietary supplements,” Lindeman said. “They also need to know when and how other alternative therapies can help their clients. We are treating people’s bodies, minds and spirits.”